Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Week 9: Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear Neurosis vs. Nuclear Laxity

            In his book, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, John Mueller proposes that we live in a kind of irrational nuclear mania, ever fearing that terrorists will access nuclear weapons, or that the world will end in a nuclear induced holocaust that will leave only vermin to populate what little may be left of our planet. Mueller explains why he believes terrorists are unlikely to procure nuclear weapons, and that this nuclear phobia drives us to make policies and set budgetary priorities that do not mesh with reality. Instead of examining the facts regarding practical nuclear capabilities, we indulge in an almost frantic awe of the power of these magical, mystical scientific innovations. Playing up their capabilities may be beneficial for the purposed of deterrence, for those who are believers in deterrence theory, but for those who prefer to calmly examine reality in an effort to more reasonably plan according to a set of plausibly likely scenarios, it may be preferable to consider things less zealously. By no means is this meant to take the fun out of science, or even to undermine the considerable and formidable power of nuclear weapons; rather, it is meant to serve as smelling salts to the fainting damsel we've all become under the potent nuclear spell. We need to come fully to our senses and measure nuclear capabilities and our response to them as detached, objective observers.


            According to Mueller, from the time the United States loosed "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, the world has lived in dread at the prospect of nuclear annihilation. He argues that this obsession has no basis in logic or scientific fact, going so far as to state that nuclear weapons have had relatively little impact on history. While this last claim makes a departure from hard logic and measurable reality, his point about our obsession with nuclear weapons being unfounded is reasonable, and more importantly, difficult to argue well against. It is true that nuclear weapons have proven to be more or less militarily useless in a literal sense, since there are few tactical application for them. But, if deterrence theory is admitted into the discussion, then there is a reasonable argument that these weapons are in constant use as a sort of invisible force field protecting the possessor from aggression. This discussion become dizzying once it moves into the implications for proliferation, but the proposal that nukes can be said to effectively deter nuclear aggression from other armed parties, when mutual destruction is assured, is at least logically reasonable. So, this is the key point where Mueller leaves himself most exposed to criticism, as it is difficult to defend the position that nukes have had little effect on recent history.


            Paul Bracken, on the other hand, cautions in his book The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics that we are too lax in our dealings with the nuclear phenomenon. He posits that the end of the Cold War ushered in a lackadaisical underestimation of the threat of nuclear weapons, and that the current situations with Iran and North Korea have introduced a second nuclear age. He further explains that the use of these weapons for political prestige has given them added value to countries that want to be recognized among the nuclear elite.


            Bracken argues that, with more countries developing nuclear capabilities, we need to more conscientiously track and evaluate how nuclear weapons are affecting international crises. He is quite concerned that we are in an acutely critical situation that will almost certainly lead to nuclear armed terrorists. While he makes excellent points about carefully calculating scenarios in order to prepare for them, he does convey a sort of hyper-vigilance regarding escalation of the nuclear situation. It would be a (perhaps fatal) mistake to grow too lax in our policies and preparations, but equally irrational and detrimental is the prospect of remaining on too high an alert, which could actually serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy by leading other nations to suspect that they had better start nuclear programs to protect themselves from the dangers we are so anxiously perceiving. In fact, Bracken laments that the current role of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia will make them impossible to eliminate. As a solution, he proposes that we must devise innovative methods for dealing with conflict in the Middle East (primarily due to Iran) and Asia (primarily due to North Korea), as he believes these conflicts are likely to result in nuclear escalation and further proliferation.

            While Mueller and Bracken clearly see things differently, they do seem to agree that we must explore more effective ways to manage the nuclear problem, and that the best way to go about this it to innovate a new global system of arms control that is more likely to inspire a consensus among states that agree on precious few aspects of the nuclear topic.

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